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Serpstat updates 27 min read February 20, 2020

Google Core Update: What Is It And What You Should Do To Stay Afloat

google core update 2020
Stacy Mine
Stacy Mine
Editor at Serpstat
In recent years, Google Core Update has been a hot topic for discussions in the SEO world. Sites suddenly get to the top, lose traffic, or completely cease to exist. Site owners panic, not understanding what to do. We decided to interview the experts in our Twitter chat and find out their opinion on this matter. I made the article that not only informs about the results of updating the basic Google algorithm, but also about ways to prevent, or at least mitigate the consequences of following updates for your site.

What is Google Core Update and why it is important

Google Core Update is the root update and adjustment of the ranking algorithm in the search engine to return more relevant and useful search results. Google makes these updates every quarter (approximately), and Google employees themselves have confirmed the last few updates.

Why is this so important?

Change of positions. Any update to the Google algorithm, whether it is a core update or just a change in the interface, causes a change in search results. Some sites become winners of this lottery, others - fall out of the race leaders, and others - don't feel any changes.

Besides, updates can affect CTR in search results, as some website owners notice an increase or decrease in traffic after the update. According to Search Engine Land, last year Google made more than 3200 changes. Still, changes to the basic search algorithm appear only several times a year, and significant core updates occur approximately once a quarter.

Google periodically makes changes to its core ranking algorithm and calls these updates the Broad Core Algorithm Update.

Search representatives claim that there are 3 crucial components of the main algorithm: Content, Links, and RankBrain.

And in total, there are more than 200 ranking factors, each of which contributes.

Thus, it becomes clear that the changes affected not just one factor but a whole series. In the case of a fall or growth of individual sites, this requires a detailed analysis of each particular case, since the reasons can be completely different.

Asking experts: what do they think about Core Update

Search Engine Land surveyed several data providers to find out how the latest update to Google's core algorithm, the January 2020 Core Update, affected search results. As you know, Google launched the update on January 13th.

RankRanger Marketing Director Mordy Oberstein noted that the YMYL niche (Your money or Your life) had been hugely affected: such niches as Health and Finance, and increases in all areas if looking at the top 10 results, except for the Retail segment.

noted that the latest Google update was quite large and affected almost all categories. The most volatile categories are Sports and News, Games, Arts and Entertainment, and Finance. At the same time, SEMRush added that significant changes were seen in all categories, so this update was not directed at any specific topic.

Sistrix has traditionally published an analysis of the Google update on its blog. According to the company, during this update, domains related to the YMYL theme were revised by the search algorithm, which led to changes in visibility. However, domains that have already been affected by such updates are likely to be hit again. Moreover, Google is becoming more accurate in its estimates and doesn't differ significantly from the previous assessments.

SearchMetrics founder Markus Tober noted that the January Core Update turned some of the previous changes for better or worse, depending on the site. This is another update to the main algorithm, where Google focused on YMYL. This update didn't seem to affect as many pages as March or September. But it has similar characteristics.

Overall picture

According to the data presented, the update was broad, involved almost all categories, and brought both improvements and losses.

We had a great Twitter chat about Core Update and asked questions that could shed more light on this area. This Twitter chat featured many great experts. See their answers below.
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Digital Strategist and SEO Consultant
Director of SEO Research at Go Fish Digital
Lyndon NA (Darth Autocrat)
(Ex-Google Webmaster)
Digital marketing consultant
Technical SEO Consultant
Strategic International SEO consultant
Digital marketer and speaker

What signifies it was a core update?

There are typically several signals: sudden, prolonged screams; lots of clucking; emails and calls! More seriously: Google tends to acknowledge/confirm; broad shifts in numerous verticals.
The impact. If I see the impact across multiple clients, I start wondering if something's up. I also look at industry buzz + Google announcements + third party data. I don't have a specific percentage (like, "Oh, if it's over 10% it's a core update).

Which impact did it have at the top of the SERPs?

This is a really interesting question. We saw the long-tail impact, not head term impact, and a lot of it was position 5-10 or lower. Traffic growth from added keywords, not from improved rankings.
That seems to vary, depending on the sector, and what was in the SERP already. In many cases, the update seems to have hit sites that I'd assume to be labeled as "lower trust" - sites that run a lot of ads, etc. That doesn't mean that sites with ads were the target, or that sites without ads weren't hit. But when you look at various factors - there are often commonalities across lower-trust sites, including milking as much ad-rev as possible.

Some of the results hit also seemed to be "shallow" in regard to the depth/breadth of what the page(s) covered. Again - another hallmark of ad-rev based sites is thinner content meant to generate clicks and views, not serve users/visitors (searchers).

Following that, you can look at the variety of terms within an associated topic (think of Head terms, mid-length phrases and long-tail terms). It's hard to be an authoritative site and not cover various terms. Whereas those attempting to rank for X, target X heavily, and often omit related/associated terms.

Rather than impacting shorter phrases, it seems to have cleaned up/out pages that were ranking for terms than the pages shouldn't really have done so for.

I think the key term is "salesy". Google is looking at info-queries and trying to return info-pages. Pages that are "pushing" and "promoting" may not be a good fit. It's like going for a financial adviser, and them trying to sell you various products :(
Even in-depth content seems hit - if it is too salesy + ad-driven. We simply have to get off the "shouting about our product" bandwagon and really listen to what users are asking. Meet real consumers' needs.
Sincerely this is something which is quite hard to understand or explain in a broad way. In the specific case of a client of mine, that was growing consistently before the update, the changes in rankings had not been bigs.
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What do you think of the recent situation with featured snippets?

It's penalizing sites that Google scrapes and deems important. Have great content? Excellent. We're going to publish that content, remove your ranking, and reduce CTR to your site. That said, I do not recommend excluding yourself from snippets. Google is Google. Using custom directives to manipulate their treatment of your site never ends well. Remember the nofollow debacle? rel next prev?
I may understand the reason why Google decided to act so, but it really makes it hard to say to the client that all the strategies we have designed about Featured Snippet, and the effort spent, must be revisited. Now we will need to:

1) see the effect of losing the search result
2) see if it is more convenient to maintain the featured snippet or the search result
3) consider that if we lose the search result, we may lose rich results
4) take a decision

Traffic and visibility slightly decreased, but on pages that that received "useless" bouncing traffic.
On the contrary, (micro)goals, conversions and revenue improved.

Which niches are usually winners/losers during the Core Google Updates?

Technically, the core updates aren't meant to impact anyone/anything specifically. The reality is that more often than not, Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) content/sites get hit more noticeably. These tend to be areas that put searchers at risk (finance, medical, large expenses, etc.), or that could be seen as having "vulnerable audiences" etc. Not surprisingly - these are often the "money maker" verticals, with "high value" keywords/terms. And they often have a fair amount of spam/questionable SEO practices, duplication, etc.

Though you often see more movement/shifting in the YMYL areas, you also see the ripples in lesser areas. No one is "spared" or "immune". That's because it's a general alteration, rather than one targeting specific terms.
Rather, the focus seems to be on identifying pages/sites that don't satisfy their users or don't provide as much value as certain other pages/sites. The hardship is that even if you are a "good site", with "good pages", you may still suffer.
I've been shown more than a few niches where the owners believe that they have suffered a loss of traffic and rankings due to a core update. It's possible that the timing is a coincidence, but there does seem to be some variety.
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Which are the signs you've been hit by a Core Google Update?

Core Updates have massive traffic drops overnight at the time of the confirmed update. So you will see 40% or more loss. There might be others that have had less, but if you are looking at only a 10%-20% loss it might be something else.
I've been shown more than a few niches where the owners believe that they have suffered a loss of traffic and rankings due to a core update. It's possible that the timing is a coincidence, but there does seem to be some variety.
It's usually an otherwise-unexplained (i.e. rule out the technical stuff + other issues first) significant traffic loss for (at least) a segment of your URLs, in the period immediately following a confirmed update.
Loss of traffic and rankings would ideally need to be addressed regardless of the cause. Step 1 is to not panic. Step 2 is to analyze your site carefully and identify potential issues that may have caused problems.

Google says you can't recover from a Core Update: is this true?

This is absolutely not true. I have recovered more than a few sites from the Core Updates. What you need to review FIRST however is technical issues as the sites I am seeing getting the hardest hit to have severe issues.

They are targeting core signals so that can be just one or many, I have ONLY seen serious technical issues though I know others have said they have seen some other items related to content.

But in the case of technology, they were specific and very severe.

Remember if your site went down others went up, so they are doing something the algorithms liked better and it will be related to site quality or content relevance most likely.
You cannot "fix it" as there isn't anything "wrong". It's not like Panda or Penguin. There's not a specific fault or guideline breach. The reality is that you can! Google is scoring pages. The core algo does much of that scoring. If they change their scoring values - you can alter your content to score better.

Let the update run, and note who and what gets impacted, and by how much. Then, (whilst waiting and not touching anything!), look for commonalities and correlations between those things. Make sure your ducks are also lined up. If you have technical issues or stuffed things up before the update ... you may be confusing symptoms and causes, or even magnifying the effects due to whatever the update is looking at.

Though many sites have various issues, they are unlikely to drop solely due to that. That would imply that the CU's are targeting specific ranking signals, or punishing the lack of specific optimizations, etc.

It's also worth noting that Google sometimes likes to multi-task or do rapid shuffles. They may push the main CU, and make a few other adjustments at the same time.
I guess *technically* that's accurate, in that there is nothing to "fix" from G's standpoint. HOWEVER, you can do a root cause analysis, understand what is driving the traffic dropoff, and modify your site to maximize the probability of recovering that traffic.
Not true if you have a real business - rather then a business built on providing content for searches. Your brand is always a key strong element that can help but you can always start again.
You can recover from a loss of traffic and rankings by increasing quality, relevance, authority, and confidence in what your site might offer. There's no magic bullet, and be careful because there is a lot of misleading information online.
The CORE UPDATES are the CORE RANKING FACTORS so you have to just check your site for standard boring old good SEO. NOTE I HAVE NOT SEEN any site that I recovered that did not have MASSIVE technical issues, so check their first. It is not the only thing, but it is the most common cause and the issues are not little. They should have been hit ages ago.
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What is thought to be part of a Core Update, but is not?

Google has come out and said that these things are not part of a CU and I have seen the same in my work: authorship (credentials), and content accuracy (they cannot review this.)
Anything that has deranked your site but turns out to be a robots.txt, canonical or meta robots issue all along. I'm expecting Google to add Domain Authority to the core this year - just to mess with us.
Penguin / Bad links? That's the only thing off the top of my head that Google has stated isn't part of a Core Update. That said - that doesn't mean Links may not be a factor, as semantically, Penguin is not independent, it's part of the core.
I would guess that the reason here reflects those who think there is a magic bullet or a few steps to take and see rankings recover. Rather, SEO demands a long-term commitment and high regard for Google Guidelines, especially for E-A-T.

How can you try to minimize the damage from the future Core Google Updates?

Audit your site, make sure the person auditing it is also a technical SEO, fix EVERYTHING that is a serious issue. The CORE UPDATES are reviewing ranking factors across the board, the closer to perfect you are the safer you are going to be.

You cannot 100% prevent it, but if you get as close to perfect as possible on CORE issues you are pretty safe. I have never had a site I am working on getting hit by an update negatively. Technical is the first thing you MUST check because if Google cannot properly crawl and index your site the rest does not matter.
Follow the guidelines but that depends on your business goals a lot more than Googles goals. The quicker you can respond the more you can over-optimize. Being safe means future-proofing but less traffic = less business.
Focus on web fundamentals and sound marketing principals, rather than growth-hacks or even what Google tells us. At the end of the day, work on your brand both online and offline. Don't solely rely on what clicks Google is providing your business.
As with any update - you have to evaluate. It's not just You and Your site, there are others, and the changes may be more them than you. So take a breath, a step back and be sensible ... and honest!

You have to take a long hard look at what was impacted, and what wasn't - on your site and your competitors. Then look at some other sites (non-competitors), and see if you can see a similar impact, and any commonalities. Only when you have data and information should you start planning changes. You need to compare what failed against what succeeded. Then plan adjustments accordingly. This may require content revisions or some house cleaning. But you shouldn't do anything drastic in one big rush. Pick a section, hammer it out, and see what happens. If you get the results you expect, then repeat elsewhere. If not, look again, and implement another set of improvements. Repeat.

Featured Snippets. There isn't really anything you can do. Google has opted to remove any "listing" that matched the Featured Snippets URI. There's no "fixing" that.

You have to now wait and see what the CTR/Traffic data tell you has happened! You're going to have to take the new figures and compare them to previous and try to estimate the CTR/Traffic value of the now de-duplicated duplicate URI and hope that if there is a deficit, it's minor.

But - don't focus on that too much!
1) don't go crazy and panic! because
2) the strategy you were following not necessarily is wrong.
3) this doesn't mean you mustn't review it and improve it eventually
4) look at damned SERPs and how they changed
5) work... and somehow try to isolate yourself from the noise. Concentrate on the site and the people it targets. Review any potential tech issue (the core update touches all the factors, also tech ones.) Create content that really answers search intents.
I generally tier things out for clients:

Baseline: regular site audits + monitoring of search console (technical errors); creation of uniquely valuable content that makes your readers' lives better. Marketing of that content to people likely to be interested.

Next: In-depth technical audits + updates (i.e. proactively make things better, don't stop at making sure they aren't broken); periodic, unbiased evaluation of current site relative to QR guidelines (since this is where Google says they *want* the algo to go).
All good points except it should be understood that what is in the QRG is NOT secrets to the algos, but simply what Google wants in a good site. A lot of misnomers happen because people think QRGs show them algo secrets. Better to follow the Webmaster Guidelines.
Agreed completely - and anyone that thinks there are "secrets" to SEO is probably doing it wrong. My theory in using the QRGs (along with WMGs) is to make sure what we're doing is aligned with what Google wants in a site, which (usually) happens to align with future algo updates.
Agreed. I tell people about it in all my talks but with the HUGE caveat that it is just telling what they look for in a good site and nothing should be considered a direct ranking factor.
Technical SEO is more important than ever.

1) avoid diluted efforts by publishing #content pieces that stray off track of your business goals/topics.
2) respond and fix issues quickly.
3) have a strong team that stays fluid with you.
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What will be Google's next steps?

They'll also continue to crack down on sites that crank out crap content. If you're STILL buying 10 blog posts a week, give up. Forget it. They'll continue to find ways to keep visitors on the SERPs.
There's a strong "trend" with the changes Google is making, and it's focused heavily on intent. There hasn't been a "normal SERP" in a long, long time. They keep adding and shuffling and tweaking and replacing etc. Worse - it varies by device, location, time of day… The result is there are various different SERP formats, which you can group by intent.
Hard to tell... well, we already know that in 29 days Google will move the similar-to-knowledge-panels Featured Snippets from the sidebar to the main search column on Desktop, making desktop identical to mobile search. That will be a bold and impacting move.
I think Google will continue its dedicate pursuit to please the searcher with the best results. These core update changes really benefit the user. It sorts out and drops the less relevant information and less trusted sites.
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Summing up

Here you see a list of expert recommendations that will help you prevent consequences or minimize harm after the storms in Google's SERP.

To save your site you need:
Work to ensure that your website complies with QRG (Quality Raters Google) and EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness).
Monitor the technical part of the project: timely payment of the domain/hosting, stable operation of the server /CMS, technical audit of the site, etc.
Continuously improve content: work on EAT content, as well as its usefulness and uniqueness.
Expand the semantic core of pages.
Create only one page of the site per intent.
Work on improving site speed.
Work on building up a high-quality link profile of the website: reject or remove low-quality links, start getting high-quality. If you use PBN, check link anchors, link schemes, etc.
Select the main pages. Delete pages that intersect for similar queries in search results. If there are external links to the deleted pages, then the addresses of the deleted pages should be 301 redirected.
Improve the behavioral factors of the site.
Pay attention to the availability of relevant contact information on the page "Contacts" for YMYL sites (Your Money or Your Life).
And also, do not forget about the constant monitoring and analysis of competing sites and instructions for Google accessors.

Thanks to all the experts who participated in the discussion! Subscribe to our Twitter, join the discussions, contests and find out all at once :)

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